It’s the little indignities, really, that make us runners, the nuanced surrender of propriety. For all of the glorified facets of running—the dramatic finish lines, the early mornings, the Saturday long runs—the sport is in the details.
So, it seems, is our collective selfhood.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, “It is not the miles that make the runner, but the ever increasing willingness to stretch your hamstrings in any public forum.”
No, but seriously. Does anyone else struggle with this issue of indiscriminate stretching? One moment, I’m standing in line at the grocery store like a normal person, and the next, I’ve got my right ankle on the edge of the cart.
“Hamstrings,” I explain in a self-effacing apology to the person behind me.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how, over the years, running has shifted my criterion for socially acceptable practices. Namely, showers are a lot less important than they used to be. Give me a couple of paper towels and a trucker hat, and I can take on the world.
But first, let us circle our wagons at Dierberg’s, shall we?
Once, after running 15 miles on a summer afternoon, I grabbed my Nike backpack and headed for the women’s bathroom at Dierberg’s. I commenced the change into clean and (gloriously) dry clothes. Just as I got down to my skivvies, my foot got stuck in the leg hole. I pitched left and right in the stall and, in a great effort not to plunge into the toilet, toppled forward toward the stall door.
Did I mention the lock on the stall door was broken?
The moment I hit the door—grazed it, really—it flung open. I flew headlong out of the bathroom stall.
“Don’t mind me!” I hollered as I picked myself off the floor and scrambled back into the stall.
Then there was the time I met a friend for a 20-mile, midweek long run. Being the prepared runner I am, I stuffed my shorts pockets with GU packets. Unfortunately, I failed to notice a hole in the lining of my shorts. Approximately 12 miles into the run, several packets of GU made their way out of the pocket and into the lining of my shorts, at which point I had to stop and rescue the packets. From my shorts. As I was standing on the side of McCausland. At rush hour.
Sigh. Running makes it so difficult to be dignified.
Running has also curtailed any dreams I may have had of being elegant. When some good friends of mine got married, I found myself faced with the choice of (1) running all of the 14 miles scheduled that day and attending the wedding without shower first, (2) running some of the miles and squeezing in a quick shower, or (3) skipping the run altogether and showing up at the wedding properly bathed and styled.
I ran all 14 miles.
(You’d be surprised how well I can pile sweaty hair on top of my head and make it look intentional.)
There are other little daily defeats of etiquette. Before I started running, I wasn’t a big spitter. Now I don’t give it a second thought. Before I started running, I never considered blowing my nose farmer’s style. Now I’m a pro.
I’ve also learned that a sleeve is an effective tissue.
And that butt sweat happens. So go ahead and sit on that park bench.
And that if you show up at Forest Park only to discover you have forgotten socks, those dirty, semi-crunchy socks you found under your passenger seat are just as effective as a clean pair.
Once the crunchiness works itself out.
Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “How embarrassing to be human.” I know the sentiment is deeply profound and philosophical. Still, I love its more superficial application as well. The human experience really is chockfull of embarrassing moments, and because running is the human experience concentrated into miles, the sport forces us to embrace what otherwise might cause us to blush. Sure, running is romantic and inspiring. But it’s also very raw and human. We are just people, after all, and as Oprah once said, “Even the Queen has to hike up her skirt and go to the bathroom.”
No, I swear. Oprah said that one time.
For all of our commitment and determination and passion, running reminds us to lighten up and not take ourselves too seriously. We’re only human, after all.
And those hamstrings aren’t gonna stretch themselves.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story. Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.